Thursday, 5 February 2009

After Lindsey: First Thoughts

So now the Lindsey Strike is over what are the immediate consequences?

Well, first and foremost, the workers do appear to have won. It has been a long, long time since anyone could say that of any strike of national prominence without any caveats or qualifications. & the strikers have won on entirely principled and defensible demands.

Secondly, though, I still can't quite agree with Mick that we should never have doubted the bona fides of the strikers. Sure: there's an offensive default message which comes from the mainstream media - it just goes 'drip-drip-drip ' on all of us to the effect that white manual workers are obviously racist. Mick's absolutely right in saying they are not. But whilst the media certainly has distorted things it didn't invent the initial chauvinistic 'mood music' which surrounded this dispute. A strong popular feeling of resentment was channeled into what I consider to be a positive direction. This wasn't inevitable. Those who played a part in ensuring this happened deserve congratulations, irrespective of any opinion of their wider politics. Nonetheless, I think Jim and Andy have a point when they distinguishes between the immediate impact of this particular strike and the way the wider political culture may misinterpret and absorb its memory. The Lindsey strike may have been won - but its meaning still remains to be fought over.

Thirdly, this is not the return of the 1970s. The Trades Union movement remains incomparably weaker than it was in my youth. In those days, Unions had real political muscle. Now they don't - one successful strike doesn't change that. They still need help to get this sort of thing delivered in the UK. I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that any government containing Peter Mandelson is going to help them on this front - they're more likely to slander such legal remedies for all workers as 'protectionist'. So a further gap may well open up between 'the two wings of the Labour Movement' (we used to be able to use that phrase in the 1970s with a straight face...). This won't, in the short term, strengthen the Unions: it might even weaken them if government minsters stop returning their calls. But it will probably weaken New Labour. It could put a squeeze on the level of Union donations in the run to an election next year - and it will certainly affect the willingness of many Trades Unionists to work for them on the ground.

Lastly, this has not just been a domestic dispute. Various forces - especially in Italy for obvious reasons - have been watching and deciding how to make best use of the events as they unfurl. It's not just the domestic anti-EU types, or the BNP, who have tried to make hay from this dispute - it is also unpleasant folk like the Northern League. The battle for a positive, Europe wide response to the economic downturn still very much remains to be won.

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